Language Matters

Please be advised that this article includes adult language that may not be suitable for all readers. This piece provides a personal reflection on the meaning, power, and importance of choosing our words carefully. #WeRideTogether encourages and empowers everyone to find agency in determining how they want to identify. 

Before graduating college in May 2023, I was active in my university’s anti-sexual violence scene. I sat on the student government and wrote legislation that demanded fraternity brothers receive increased sexual assault education since they are 3x more likely than other college students to commit it. I helped plan multiple protests when the school’s sexual assault rate skyrocketed. I helped start a women’s safety Facebook group. I taped resources in bar bathroom stalls. I was co-president of the campus’s only survivor organization. I was constantly interviewed by student media about sexual violence on campus. I even convinced my entire IHSA region to wear armbands in support of #WeRideTogether, prior to becoming the organization’s Communications Manager. 

All of this stemmed from being raped at a fraternity in the fall of my sophomore year. Being raped had always been the thing I was most afraid of, so it was a nightmare-come-true. In the months and years that followed, I was abandoned and disbelieved by a majority of my sorority sisters. I tried to pursue legal action, but even my attorney knew I wouldn’t emotionally survive discovery, the pre-hearing fact-finding process. I walked into the ocean and, eventually, ran away to France. I had to move to another continent to start to heal.

And, I’m fine. Now. But I did not survive. I want to be very clear. The bubbly, sparkling, confident, fantastically outgoing, teenage part of me did not survive. Please, stop calling me a survivor. 

In recent decades, but especially since the onslaught of the #MeToo movement, we’ve generally stopped referring to people, especially women and girls, who have been sexually assaulted, abused, harassed, or raped as victims. Maybe it seems impolite? Disempowering? I’m not sure. We don’t say he is a survivor of mugging or he’s a survivor of simple assault. But when it’s crimes against (predominantly) women and girls, we don’t get to claim victimhood. We have to be survivors.

I am not the same person I was before I was raped. I think that, generally, most people who’ve experienced sexual violence feel the same way. There are parts of you that don’t survive. Being a survivor implies that you came out the other side of trauma better, stronger, braver. Maybe you’re even glad it happened, because it turned you into a Superwoman, crusading to protect other women and girls.

Aside from the fact that it is not a victim’s responsibility to protect other people, I’ve done those things. I almost immediately launched myself into advocacy. I knew that I was beyond saving, but maybe my friends weren’t. I knew I couldn’t protect myself, but maybe I could protect the Indiana University Class of 2027, the freshmen of my senior year. So why don’t I feel like a survivor? 

Probably because I’m not. I’m a victim. For some reason, even when unconscionable violence is done to you, we aren’t supposed to say I’m a victim. But why? Why do I have to be a survivor? When I’m asked why I work in advocacy, why should I couch the violence I experienced with positive language just to avoid an uncomfortable moment?

It makes people uncomfortable to hear a woman say I am a victim. It forces a little part of the brain to think about the widespread societal violence we accept against women and girls. It confronts the fact that sexual violence is violence, even when the victim doesn’t walk away bloodied and bruised. To tell you that I am a survivor is to be dishonest about the nature of rape. I am a victim of violence. I lived, but I did not survive.

Don’t get me wrong – I think that if others who have experienced sexual violence want to identify as survivors, they should. I think there’s value in emphasizing the resilience, grace, and grit it takes to overcome that experience. I think that optimistically-minded survivors should call themselves that, because it’s also true. I just think that I, too, should be allowed to self-identify however I want. And I identify as a victim.

Being a victim already comes with its fair share of double-edged swords. If I say nothing, if I do nothing, and he goes on to re-offend, people will say it’s my fault, that I should have reported. If I go to the police, I’ll be the one getting interrogated, not him, and the likelihood that any charges would even be brought against him is around 1%. If I don’t report, but I tell the people around me in hopes of receiving support or warning my friends, then I’m a liar and a gossip. 

There’s some unknowable right amount of speaking out, which of course is unachievable, where I am both believed and not causing anyone the discomfort of thinking about what the fact that I was raped means. So, please, even the single word I use to identify myself doesn’t need to be a double-edged sword.

Victim and survivor each come with a connotation, like any word. If I’m a victim, I’m weak, I let it happen, I’m playing the victim card, I’m self-pitying. If I’m a survivor, I’m strong, I overcame, I’m a fighter. 

Let me be a fighter while acknowledging that what happened to me was really fucked up. I don’t feel like I survived, even if I call myself a survivor. 

Language matters when we talk about sexual violence. It matters that we don’t downplay its severity. It matters that we rightly identify it as violence, and use accurate and truthful language. When we force people who have experienced sexual violence into identifying as survivors, even if we are trying to emphasize their strength, their resilience, we downplay the violence itself. If people want to identify as survivors because they recognize their strength and resilience, they should. But don’t do it for them. We need to recognize sexual violence as violence, with all the messy, uncomfortable, society-damning elements that come with it. When I tell you I’m a victim of rape, you should feel uncomfortable. Not with me, or with the situation, and you shouldn’t feel guilty. But you should feel uncomfortable with a society that allows 50% of athletes to experience sexual abuse, more than 1 in 4 college women to experience rape, and 1 in 9 girls to experience child sexual abuse. 

The violence that was done to me should make you uncomfortable. I hope it makes you uncomfortable enough to act to end violence against women and girls. But if you aren’t there, at the very least don’t tell me I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor. It’s disingenuous and it’s false. I’m a victim. Instead of policing my language, let’s work together for a future in which there are no victims because there is no violence. 

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Madison Smith

Communications Manager at #WeRideTogether

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